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The Art of Learning

Understanding the Big Ideas

Good teaching is when learners can make their own connections to knowledge they already have, says Kai Niebert. The education researcher is looking at how teaching is being conducted today and how it can be improved, especially at high school level.
Text by Thomas Gull; Translation by Karen Oettli-Geddes
Smiling students
Good teaching means conveying new information in a way that it connects to what we already know and serving this information in brain-friendly morsels.

How does knowledge get into the human brain? This is a question of interest to us all, whether learner or teacher. And it’s the question driving research projects around teaching and learning such as that conducted by professor of education Kai Niebert. For a long time, the foie gras paradigm has prevailed: cleverness is achieved by stuffing the brain with knowledge, much as food is pumped into the stomach of a goose.

Mostly traditional delivery of information

In practice, the principle takes the form of drilling, cramming and teacher-centered instruction, as omniscient teachers pass on their wisdom in a direct line to their learners who listen attentively, take detailed notes, and then dutifully learn everything by heart at home. Good marks are awarded for accurately regurgitating what can be memorized.

Even today, around 90 percent of teaching, especially in high schools, still consists of the abstract delivery of information. Sometimes this is good and what’s required, Kai Niebert says. But at the same time, he is clear on one thing: “Meaningful knowledge arises when the new information we’re receiving is relevant to us, and when we can apply it to our everyday life and connect it to what we already know.”

Building upon existing knowledge

The art of teaching and learning is therefore to deliver new information in such a way that it connects to the knowledge base we already have – and succeeds in expanding, supplementing or changing the contents of this base. “Learning is the continuous modification of notions,” says Niebert. And the notions that need to be modified are very individual, as everyone creates their own world and their own reality.

Just as the knowledge in our brains constantly changes – as we accumulate, integrate and sometimes also delete, i.e. forget content over the course of our life – our brain also changes. This is because the brain is constantly reorganizing itself: creating new connections between synapses, for example. German neuroscientist Gerhard Roth writes: “From a neurobiological point of view, learning is based on the long-term reconfiguration of neuronal networks, i.e. on the reinforcement or weakening of existing synapses, and occasionally on their new formation.”

Signals are received differently

Taken that our brain is autopoietic and self-creates our perception of the world and our knowledge base, the foie gras style of learning is destined to fail: teachers cannot assume that the signals they send out into the classroom will reach each learner in the same way. “The first thing that happens when we receive information,” says Kai Niebert, “is that sensory cells in our brain – such as our visual or auditory cells – are stimulated.” These electrical excitations are initially meaningless and content-free. The brain then creates meaning once it starts to compare and combine the neuronal excitations. What this all leads to depends on the respective person’s experiences.

Each person has their own knowledge puzzle

It’s therefore important for teachers to understand that the signals they emit when conveying facts and information are picked up by different recipients, who compare them with what they already know and then insert them into their own personal knowledge puzzle. “Pupils and students don’t come to class as blank slates,” says Kai Niebert. “On the contrary, they all bring their own notions, their own prior knowledge.” And this is what good teaching needs to build upon. At the same time, misconceptions need to be recognized and corrected, and brains cleared of unnecessary trash. For example, studies conducted by Niebert and his team show that certain eighth graders believe that global warming is a result of the hole in the ozone layer. If meaningful discussions on global warming and counteractive measures are to be held in class, it’s important to recognize false concepts and help learners acquire the correct technical facts.

Building bridges

Based on these findings, what does good teaching look like? Kai Niebert distinguishes between three types of teaching: firstly, the abstract, where content is conveyed directly from teacher to learner, for example through formulas, diagrams or mnemonics. “Teaching the basic principles of a subject is important. But if you only explain them in abstract terms, you leave it to the learners themselves to look for bridges to existing notions. The risk of this method is that the bridges could quickly collapse,” Niebert says. It’s better – and this is where we come to types two and three – to support the learners in linking the new and abstract content with existing knowledge.

Deceptive analogies

One way of doing this is by creating experiences, for example with experiments where learners have to do something themselves; or by building bridges using linguistic images like analogies that bring abstract content to life. But analogies also have their pitfalls, as they can convey false ideas. In the past, for example, people saw the brain as a machine with interlocking gears. From today's perspective, this says more about the mechanistic thinking of the time than about what actually takes place in the brain. Linguistic images are therefore good ways of teaching abstract and complex content – but they have to be accurate. “For this reason, it’s our job as teachers to point out those that are no longer applicable,” Niebert continues, “otherwise we help anchor false ideas in students’ minds. And these are difficult to correct – and that’s if they’re even recognized in the first place.”

Lectures? Yes, but make them good!

When it comes to lectures, we neither have to – nor should we – think of getting by without them, Niebert says. But it’s important to make sure they are interesting, and to design and divide up the content in a brain-friendly way. “Otherwise, listeners will just doze off at some stage.” The culprit is our brain, which cannot focus for more than a few minutes. After this period, the working memory has to “catch its breath” and process the input. Successful teaching is therefore the art of serving brain-friendly morsels through a range of different teaching methods.

Repetition pays off

In addition to connecting new to prior knowledge, a key aspect of effective learning is repetition, whether at the end of the lesson, in the form of homework or by returning to it again at a later date. This is due to the way in which knowledge is stored in our memory system: by passing from the working memory via the intermediate memory into the long-term memory, a lot of information is lost along the way. Gerhard Roth calls the working memory the “bottleneck” in the learning process because content can only be stored there for a short time.

Another important aspect of learning is sleep: this is when content the brain considers important is shifted to the long-term memory. Since newly acquired knowledge takes weeks or even months to consolidate, it’s worth taking the time to go over it again.

Basics first

Just as the capacity of our brain is as limited as the time we can invest in learning, it’s essential to learn the right things and to learn them correctly. Kai Niebert therefore advocates a form of teaching that is geared towards helping learners to understand the bigger connections and to reflect on them in their own way. “High schools in particular should not only be preparing students for university, but also enabling young people to help shape society. In this context, it’s more important that they understand the big ideas of each discipline than to be able to quote Ohm's law.” Such basic scientific principles include “matter in the universe consists of very small particles”; or “the diversity of organisms is a result of evolution”; or “all organisms are based on cells”.

For teaching, this means less is more. In concrete terms: fewer details and more connections should be taught. And the connections created along interdisciplinary lines. Kai Niebert cites carbon as an example. After being addressed in chemistry lessons as an element that is released through combustion, teachers could then connect this insight to topics such as global warming or the energy debate.

Understanding is fun

The goal of teaching must be for learners to be able to think in interdisciplinary terms, Niebert argues. He is therefore in favor of slimming down school curricula in Switzerland, currently in his capacity as a member of the working group assigned by the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education to revise the Matura examination regulations. However, Niebert admits that his stance doesn’t make it easy for him as the general tendency is to move in the other direction: “The subject groups merely itemize what has already been taught, plus the new content that needs to be taught.” This makes no sense to our education researcher. He is therefore campaigning for a radical decluttering of the curriculum to create space and time for teachers to teach the big ideas and have the flexibility to do so using live examples. Because, Niebert says: “Understanding is fun. And when we understand connections, learning is fun.” A finding that neuroscience confirms: when we learn successfully, our brain rewards us by releasing opioids and the happiness hormone oxytocin. It’s a fact – learning can be intoxicating and make you happy!

This article first appeared in the  UZH Magazin, issue no. 3, 2022.

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